September 20, 2009 • FeaturesFrom the BenchWinning Hoops

S.O.S. — Save our sportsmanship

The state of sportsmanship in today’s athletic culture is at an all-time low. Headlines regarding embarrassing or unethical behavior and shameful violence have become commonplace. The National Alliance for Youth Sports estimates that 15 percent of parents and spectators will embarrass their children or act abusive toward young players officials and coaches at athletic events.

As a result of all this negativity, nearly 70 percent of all participants quit organized sports by the age of 13. Even more ominous child psychologist Darrell J. Burnett has found that most “troubled” youths (trouble youths are classified by Burnett as runaways drug users and adolescents with suicidal tendencies) are youth sports dropouts.

Root causes

Recent trends such as requiring parents to sign behavioral pledges using gimmicks like “silent days” for spectators, or adopting so-called zero-tolerance policies, don’t address the root cause of the problem.

Solving the sportsmanship issues of today is reminiscent of the old story about the person who’s hiking through the woods and hears continuous cries for help coming from people who are falling into the nearby river and are in need of rescue. The hiker spends all day jumping into the river and rescuing people. Each rescue is followed by another cry for help. The hiker is spending so much time saving people that he’s unable to see how they’re getting into trouble and falling into the river in the first place.

Unlike the hiker, we can look at our societal compass and see that it points directly to three main factors that are contributing to today’s sportsmanship concerns.

  1. Too many uneducated spectators with varying agendas.
  2. Poorly trained coaches with varying agendas.
  3. A misdirected attraction toward the revenue-driven model of professional sports.

Searching for answers

Experts agree that adults in charge of youth and scholastic sports programs must focus on the needs of their developing athletes. This requires changes in adult attitudes, as well as in the formats of many youth and scholastic sports systems.

On the youth and scholastic level, programs should be designed to keep as many players involved as possible up until the varsity level. Once at that level, teens are ready to be subjected to cuts. Winning can take a priority over playing time, and other “real-world” lessons about competition can be learned.

Strategies for implementing sportsmanship and making positive changes in such programs should include defining and emphasizing sportsmanship, stressing participation rather than won-loss results, teaching values as part of the program, and educating and involving parents in a positive manner.

Defining sportsmanship

Today’s athletic culture seems to have an “I-know-it-when-I-see-it” mentality when it comes to sportsmanship. Sadly, when most people think of sportsmanship, they think it’s little more than shaking hands at the end of a ball game.

Youth and scholastic sports leaders need to clearly define sportsmanship to athletes and spectators. The Josephson Institute of Ethics ( preaches a “Character Counts” philosophy and defines sportsmanship as “pursuing victory with honor.” Another cliche, yet wise old adage, is “It’s not how you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.”

Young athletes would benefit tremendously by having more opportunities to organize and lead themselves. Few young people partake in sports in an informal manner or play pick-up games any more. Instead of the current system how about parents dropping off their children and allowing them to organize coach and play themselves while under the adult supervision of trusted individuals? This would allow young athletes a chance to learn the rules value fair play and never be tempted to cheat.

What’s best for young athletes?

Youth and scholastic programs should focus on what’s best for the young players. Strategies should include:

  • Finding creative ways to teach fundamentals.
  • Modifying equipment and rules when needed.
  • Encouraging all players to learn all positions.
  • Allowing for equal playing time.

A quality practice plan must include warm-up and cool-down discussions that focus on sportsmanship before and after each game. Coaches at all levels should be partners in teaching sportsmanship to players and spectators.

It’s how you watch the game

Most coaches have heard the joke about the coach who gives the team a lecture about how the game isn’t just about winning, and how it’s wrong to talk trash to opposing players or act disrespectfully toward the officials. While the coach dutifully continues to explain that sports is just a game, all the players nod and agree. The coach asks the players if they understand, and they all agree. “Good,” the coach says. “Now go home and explain that to your parents.”

A key toward developing sportsmanship in spectators is to educate them. Coaches need to demonstrate that it’s OK to socialize with members of the opposing teams, rather than treating them as enemies. Spectators must be taught to acknowledge the outstanding performances and efforts of all participants and to appreciate the referees for performing a difficult job.

Adults could do a great service to young athletes if they would focus on participation and effort rather than results. The message should always be that while winning is important, how you play the game is even more important.

Rob Vandenabeele is a physical education and health teacher at Sharon Middle School Sharon Mass. He has served as both a coach and sports official at the youth high school and college levels.